The number of child abuse and neglect cases reported in New Mexico is growing, and it’s taking the state longer to act on these cases, says a report that state lawmakers are set to discuss Friday, during a hearing in Santa Fe.

Repeated high-profile incidents have made child abuse — and the government’s response to it — a front-burner issue.

Concerns have reached new heights in recent months following the death in Albuquerque of 9-year-old Omaree Varela, who allegedly was kicked to death by his mother. The child had been placed in foster care, but on the authority of the state Children, Youth and Families Department, he was returned to his mother in 2011.

The 24-page report by the staff of the Legislative Finance Committee includes ideas on what the state can do to reduce child abuse.

Citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the report says the child victim rate has steadily risen in New Mexico over the last four years. The rate of 11.4 child victims per 1,000 children was higher than the rate in four neighboring states in 2012.

The amount of time it takes to reach disposition of a child abuse allegation in New Mexico also rose drastically in just three years: From 55 days in 2009 to 85 days in 2012.

The report estimates that more than a third of children who are substantiated victims will be abused or neglected again before they are 18.

Most substantiated allegations of maltreatment are for physical neglect rather than physical or sexual abuse, the report says.

Asked about the rise in abuse and neglect cases, CFYD spokesman Henry Varela said Thursday those numbers show that more incidents are being reported to the proper authorities — not necessarily that there are more incidents occurring.

“Since the #SAFE hotline for child abuse reports was implemented in 2011, referrals to CYFD have increased steadily as CYFD has worked to make it easier for members of the public to report child maltreatment,” Varela said. “More reporting of abuse is a good first step for kids in New Mexico.”

The department receives more than 30,000 referrals of alleged maltreatment every year. Each year, the state identifies more than 6,500 victims of abuse and neglect.

“Regarding the period of time for dispositions of allegations, it’s critical to note that represents only the administrative closing of cases between 2009 and 2012,” Varela said. “The fact that a case was not closed administratively does not mean that the case was not investigated within the appropriate timelines, substantiated or unsubstantiated, or that appropriate services were not offered to families.”

According to the Legislative Finance Committee report, about five children per 1,000 received preventative services from the CYFD in 2012. That’s compared to a national average of 43 children per 1,000.

About 2,000 children are in foster care at any given time in New Mexico, the report states.

New Mexico ranks highest among all states for drug abuse as a factor in child abuse. Federal statistics show that 63 percent of abuse and neglect victims in New Mexico have a caregiver who abuses drugs. The national average is 20 percent.

The report found that over an eight-year period, more than half the children were referred more than once to CYFD — in some cases more than 20 times. “Children are often referred to the state for suspected maltreatment multiple times without receiving services of any kind,” the report says.

Currently, the state spends far more money on foster care than it does on in-home, preventative services. In 2012, more than 2,600 children received foster care services, while nearly 1,200 received in-home services.

“Given New Mexico’s worsening child abuse and neglect rates and the continued struggle with recurrence of maltreatment,” the report says, “the state may wish to make increased investments in proven early intervention programs.”

Among programs the report lists as effective are SafeCare, in which trained professionals work with at-risk families in their home environments to improve parents’ skills in several areas, and Alternative Response, which was tried a pilot program in the state from 2005 to 2007.

In the latter program, in cases in which there were no imminent concerns about a child’s safety, social workers conducted family assessments “with the goal of engaging a family to determine strengths and needs and plan for the future.” The report said families who accepted the program had almost half as many repeat reports as families who declined services.

The report says “further evaluation is needed to assess the effectiveness of [current] family preservation programs run by CYFD and its contractors.”

Gov. Susana Martinez last week introduced a plan to better recruit and retain caseworkers. The plan includes hiring a specialized CYFD recruiter and a 10 percent increase in funding for the CYFD Academy of Professional Development. The governor also approved a 4 percent increase in base pay for child welfare caseworkers on top of the 3 percent raise that was in the state budget.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com.